The years that followed are a bit of a blur now, but somewhere around thirty, the desire to apply the brakes on time edged in, much like that first gray hair or crease at the corner of one's eyes. Like many other women my age,I joined the gym, in an effort to stay trim after having given birth to three children. I knew I couldn't slow down the aging process any more than I could speed it up as a child, but perhaps I could add a stroke or two of grace to time's hand. Besides, when you live where the winters are as long and cold as they are in Michigan, working out was a way to keep warm while keeping the winter fat at bay.
It was a typically gray, January morning in my West Michigan town when I finished a circuit training class I'd signed up for to keep the blood from freezing in my veins. I headed for the locker room where groups of women stood around in various stages of undress. As I rounded the second row of lockers, I caught sight of what looked like a tissue on the floor in front of the benches. The closer I got, the more apparent it became that it wasn't a Kleenex; but a tampon. An obviously used tampon, and it was right next to my locker.
I looked around the room to see if anyone else had noticed but everyone seemed to be very busy chatting, blow-drying, or putting on make-up before heading back tout in the cold. I surreptitiously padded over to my locker, removed my clean clothes, and sat down at the far end of the bench lest anyone think the bloody cotton was mine. As I untied my sneakers, the collective sense of shame and embarrassment was palpable.
And that's when our heroine, okay my heroine, rounded the corner. A stout woman with sculpted calves and wearing a baggy tee shirt over shorts rather than designer jog-bra and spandex; she marched into the locker room and immediately spied the object of our shame. She looked at it, then at all of us, before grabbing a paper towel from the wall dispenser and scooping the thing up and tossing it in the trash..
"For crying out loud, we all know what it is and where it came from, why are you all pretending it doesn't exist?"
Nobody said a word, just stared at the floor or at each other, awkwardly, until the woman shook her head and yanked open her locker, mumbling. She pulled off her sweaty clothes and walked buck naked--all 175 or so muscled pounds of her--to the showers. The other women eventually recovered and went back to their gossip or talking about their children or pot roast recipes, but I was stricken with a sudden realization that I no longer yearned to reach a certain age, but to arrive at a point in life when I could master that kind of honesty and lack of concern for what others might think of me. To act with courage instead of self-monitoring. To call attention to the elephants in our world with grace and conviction.
Nearly two decades later, I rounded the corner near my home and spotted a young man hitting his dog because it wouldn't pull him on his skateboard. Before I had time to think about the risk, I turned my car around and rolled down the window.
"You put another hand on that poor dog and I'm calling animal services! It's a pet, not your slave!"
The kid looked at me and shrugged. "Whatever," he said, before jumping on his board and pushing off. The little dog ran along at his side, forgiveness a foregone conclusion. It never occurred to me to consider what the kid or the neighbors might think of me for yelling out my window as I followed that bloody tampon for several blocks before turning off toward home.